For many Portlanders, "The White Album Xmas" is their "Nutcracker," their annual ritual of music, movement and holiday merriment.
No matter that they are crammed into the 400 seat Alberta Rose Theater. Hearing the Beatle's entire 30-song "White Album" played by a live band accompanied by a circus act telling a different Christmas story every year, gets people singing along and blundering out into the Alberta Street rain with giant smiles as they talk it over with friends.
This is the 15th year of "WAX," which runs Wednesday, Nov. 30-Saturday, Dec. 10. Bandleader John Averill, who also leads , first gets to see what Jon Dutch and his Rose City Circus will throw at them live when they meet at dress rehearsal on Thanksgiving weekend.
"We pick a different song for the encore every year, and this year it's a song by (Paul McCartney's) Wings, with full orchestration … not wanting to give it away," joked Averill. "If we've got horns and strings, it's a pity to do an encore without them. It'll be a singalong."
The band only has two rehearsals, but the "White Album" is baked into the band's brain. "I don't read or write music, so I have to learn everything by ear. But when it comes to horns and strings, they really like to read the charts (sheet music)," adds Averill.
"This year is our most ambitious," says Jon Dutch of the circus act on the left side of the stage. "Since things have changed with the pandemic the circus world has really taken off." As he tours the country, he scouts talent to come to Portland for "WAX."
Dutch's team comes up with a new storyline each year, which the NowHere Band don't know about until rehearsal. "(In 2022) I feel like we've kind of created a new Christmas classic. I hope it's going to fill people's hearts up and make them feel that community and togetherness and what it really means, the Christmas spirit," said Dutch.
Blaze of Glory
Dutch has been doing his perch (pole balancing) act in 3,000-person venues recently with Cirque Mechanics. He sometimes performs at NBA halftime shows. "(Perch) has just blown up our career, now we're working at a higher level of production," which has improved their offering for "WAX."
Two weeks ago, he was in Utah for the Utah Jazz versus Phoenix Suns game. So why isn't he doing halftimes for the Blazers at the Moda Center?
"I met the Utah mascot Jazz Bear, he was doing acrobatics in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, and we became fast friends." Apparently, Jazz Bear knows the Blazers mascot Blaze, so Dutch is hoping he can put in a word for Rose City Circus.
Dutch, 39, says circus people can do 11 or 12 shows a week. Averill approaches "WAX" like a marathon and usually feels strongest on the last night. "It doesn't really tax the musicians," said Averill. "It's the vocalists. Sarah King is in great shape. Jason (Wells) comes limping in to the first show with his tea and his throat lozenges, but I think it's a bunch of B.S., he can do it," he jokes. Averill, 55, goes straight home after the show to protect his voice. Dutch says the circus performers usually party.
New on stage this year is Jordie Campbell, doing contortion and aerial straps. There will be clowning (but not white face clowns), an elf acrobatic act, and the old favorites, Leapin' Louie Lichtenstein, AWOL aerial dancers, and jugglers with LED lights in their clubs.
Dutch said this year's story revolves around Santa and Leapin' Louie having gone into retirement in Mexico. There's a scramble to bring them back when it becomes clear the new Santa is meaner and more corporate, killing the holiday spirit. "It deals with our responsibility to the community versus the responsibility we have to ourselves."
Averill loves the stories. "We do the same music every year, but having the circus change, and the story change, I have a lot of respect for that. It takes a lot of energy to rewrite something every year and keep the theme strong. Dutch brought the Christmas spirit back into the show versus it just being a show." Averill says "White Album Xmas" is the show's name, but the circus makes it a Christmas show.
"Not everybody likes Christmas, people have memories of Christmas as not being a good time and having a lot of baggage. I happen to be one of those people that actually loves Christmas, I always have." Averill loves the animated TV shows, the anticipation.
"Dutch is on the same page, not for Christmas as being a materialistic holiday, but actually the spirit of people coming together and celebrating."
"It's the most special show that I've ever been a part of. Even once me and John both retire, I feel like this is a thing that should just exist in Portland in perpetuity."
This venue has a certain vibe.
"It's the perfect size venue for what we're doing," said Dutch "There's an intimacy, we can really connect with the crowd."
When his parents came to WAX last year, Dutch rotated the balance act so that Angela Burt could present his mom with a rose in the front row. It was a moving moment of Beatlemania and filial love.
Dutch explained: "I didn't grow up very rich. I only had, like, five tapes and I was four years old when I first listened to the 'White Album'." It was his mom's. "There could not be more of an emotional connection to me. I'm literally bawling my eyes out backstage."